“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” — Ernest Hemingway
Yes, it is.
The sun shone again on Sunday morning. I was at home, waking in a familiar bed, going through familiar processes, washing, making porridge for breakfast and yet, far away from the routine I had devised for myself over the last month. It felt strange seeing cupboards full of clothes to wear and disorientating not having the comfort of knowing that all the possessions I required were stowed in my backpack. ‘What on earth do I need all this stuff for?’ was a question that intruded itself into my thoughts several times, as I tried to concentrate on doing what I had done every day over the trail – ensuring that I had everything together, before setting off for the day’s walk. Kit, water, tea, lunch, dog.
I had imagined that the last day on the Wicklow Trail would be a slow amble downhill through an increasingly suburban landscape, Powerscourt park turning out to sparsely populated country lanes and these becoming wider, with more houses and cottages and cars, which in turn would become thoroughfares and housing estates before finally crossing the motorway and ending up in Marlay Park and the end of the journey. A gradual anticlimactic run-off of the drama of the Wicklows over the last week.
Again – my imagination and my reality were wildly out of sync and that, despite the fact of my GPS device having given me quite clear readings, that there was going to be a great deal of contour crossing and hills to be navigated, before we arrived at the final destination on the official trail. And, indeed, I really should have known better. It was there on the map and my own observations of the countryside surrounding Dublin should have been enough warning to realise: Dublin doesn’t start becoming a city until the great metal river, the M50 ring road, has been traversed. Before that there are mountains and wilderness and half-deserted valleys running to within less than a kilometre of the motorway. And so it was that my last day, instead of being a gentle run-off with a long acclimatisation phase over 10-15 kms proved itself a fully-fledged walk of some 26 km, taking in four substantial climbs, three valleys, a beautiful stretch of river bank, an almost alpine scramble up to the top of Prince Williams Seat and finishing with another spectacular panorama over the whole of Dublin Bay and the spread of the City on the descent from Dublin Mountain.
Britta dropped me off at 1015 at the gates of Powerscourt Waterfall, just down from Coolakay House and round the corner from the Crone forest carpark. I ascended the steep path I had walked down yesterday, following the markers of fallen trees through the undergrowth until my little footpath merged with the broader walkway at the upper edges of the Powerscourt demesne, which from the higher ground looks like a hidden garden of Eden at the foot of gigantic cliffs. The walk ways were already well populated by sunday excursionists, the sun was bright in an almost cloudless sky and the Wicklow Way appeared to all intents and purposes to have put the rugged, treeless uplands behind it and was settling down to the more genteel walkway suitable for city folk, exactly as in my imaginings.
As we dropped down onto Crone Lane from the carpark and disappeared into the woods after some 200m, there was nothing in the scenery that disabused me of that notion, although I did wonder how we were going to cram in all those contours and hills that the map was showing me we were going to have to traverse, before arriving in Marlay. The forest quickly gave way to open woodland and fields above a burbling stream and a strangely aggressive “Absolutely No Camping” sign hanging high in the branches of tree. This was Glencree and without doubt one of the prettiest and most bucolic of the passages I had yet travelled. It was perfect countryside: a beautiful lively stream, with an abundance of wild flowers, a profusion of bluebells, the remnants of daffodils, myriad primroses, cowslips and daisies, rolling fields undulating down a gentle slope from the woods above, and as a backcloth, the mountains of Wicklow rising up behind the stream, over which crossed a handsome sturdy wooden bridge with a kissing gate at the northern end. It soon became clear that we were on private land and that the right of passage had probably been wrangled after lengthy negotiation and silver-tongued diplomacy on the part of the Wicklow Way’s constructors from a less than enthusiastic landlord. It was one thing having the great unwashed come sauntering over your land, but quite unacceptable to have them tenting on it – imagine the mess?! That, at least explained, the profusion of Absolutely No Camping signage, which we soon left behind as we continued our delightful walk along the banks of the Glencree river, which we left after about a kilometre to head sharply up the bank and back into the forest.
After that is was a Grand Old Duke of York march for the rest of the day: Up through Knockree Mountain and down again. Along the road to the entrance to Carrickaspikeen Park and the long climb up to Prince Williams Seat and down again off Glencullen Mountain into Glenncullen Valley. Then up again, this time on a much steeper pull onto Dublin Mountain, which lasted all the way to Fairy Castle, before dropping down again, for the last time that day – to the aforementioned magnificent views over Dublin, with the enormous Dundrum shopping complex, looking like nothing so much as mini version of Dubai dominating the views to the south, the iconic twin towers of the power station out to the east in the bay before the city and the other identifiable landmarks scattered around within the city boundaries. Marlay Park, a vast green area with a sizeable house at its eastern perimeter, furthest away from my position, was clearly visible down below in the valley, tucked in just behind the flowing river of cars that was the M50 motorway.
And that was it. A long walk down the hill, which morphed from track to park way to quiet road, dropping steadily throughout before appearing under the motorway bridge and emerging on the far side some 300m from the south-western entrance to Marlay Park. I will admit that the last part of this wonderful trip is a pain in the arse. The Wicklow Way signage takes the walker coming from the south and who wants nothing more than to be finished through a circuitous route through complicated paths in a forest before spitting him/her out on the lawn directly in from of the Marlay House itself (a rather hideous 19th century mansion constructed by the Latouche family, prominent Dublin bankers of yesteryear, proving, if we needed reminding, that overpaid 19th C. bankers were no less devoid of good taste than their latter day descendants).
I had promised to keep to the official way right until the end, assuming (incorrectly) that the end (or rather start) of the Wicklow Way would be demarcated by some grand arch or worthy monument.
So I slavishly followed the signs of the little yellow man who had accompanied us since Waterville, some 620 km and 17.500 m of ascent ago, only to get lost on the last 100m. Honestly – the very last sign that was supposed to lead me through the Wicklow gate, the small stone stepping gate that indeed marks the start/finish of this magnificent trail, pointed me off in completely the wrong direction so that I missed the gate altogether, the only time since Cahersiveen that I had even been remotely off trail. At least there were no brambles this time.
Britta was there to greet me with my two daughters, Bunny and Georgie, and together we traipsed off to the open food market in the courtyard of Marlay House, just as a vicious wind was starting to whip up and frighten the park strollers and their dogs and children back to the safety of their cars. A few brace of exquisite hot dogs and chips washed down with fresh fruit smoothies and – thanks to Mick Kelly for this recommendation – a shot of wheatgrass later, we were done and ready to head off home. And that was that, more or less.
I didn’t find the time to be melancholy or sad or even a little triumphant or to reflect on the undeniable fact that I had completed what I set out to achieve, namely to walk from Waterville to Dublin, to discover and make my own my new home country, to reflect on what I wanted to do, now that I was properly here, to make a few new friends along the way and to get my head around the geography of the country or at least the southern half. The walk – apart from the last little 10km snippet into Temple Bar – was over and the days of living out of my backpack and walking a daily ration 30km finished for the moment.
I posted the following statistics on my Facebook Walk page after I had completed the download from my Garmin and totted up the scores from 22 days of walking and 25 on the road:
Total kilometers walked : 619,2
Number of days walked: 22
Number of days on the trail: 25
Average track per day: 28,5 km
Average speed: 5,0 km/h
Total Ascent in metres: 17.500 (!)
Total Descent in metres: 17.250
Number of iPhones trashed: 1
Number of Mars Bars devoured: lost count
I received a number of well-wishing comments, for which I am truly grateful, but the best one came from an old friend who simply wrote: “ You are rich now”.
Indeed I am.
In western lands beneath the Sun
The flowers may rise in Spring,
The trees may bud, the waters run,
The merry finches sing.
Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night,
And swaying branches bear
The Elven-stars as jewels white
Amid their branching hair.
Though here at journey’s end I lie
In darkness buried deep,
Beyond all towers strong and high,
Beyond all mountains steep,
Above all shadows rides the Sun
And Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
Nor bid the Stars farewell.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien